By Michael Rowan
A charismatic populist polarizes society, demands system change, rips apart the fragile institutions of democracy and economy, and then dies, leaving rampant corruption to know-nothing sycophants who loot the place of its last billion while millions starve. That’s Venezuela. Is that scenario possible in the USA? A book to be published by Michael Rowan and Russ Dallen in 2019 entitled “Catastrophic Hoax: Is Trump doing to America what Chavez did to Venezuela?”
makes the case that it may indeed be happening.
Trump’s shocking victory in the 2016 election, followed by almost 700 days of disruptive anti-system behavior that dominated world news, and then Trump’s loss of the House accompanied by the retention of the U.S. Senate in the 2018 election, appear to give him a good chance to win a second term in 2020, solidifying his power. How could Americans be choosing this to happen?
Let’s listen carefully to the Trump supporters. It turns out that 40% to 47% of Americans share all or most of these feelings deeply:They don’t think of America as a melting pot of people from around the world coming to what used to be called The New World to make it a better place.
They eschew the words carved into the Statue of Liberty,
Give me your Tired, Your Poor, Your Huddled Masses
Yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me:
I lift my lamp beside the golden door
They believe that the American system is rigged against hardworking, patriotic, nationalistic, white Americans who originally founded America. They are resentful.
They believe that the American system is tilted against traditional white people in favor of black, Hispanic, Asian, immigrants and foreigners some or all of whom they identify as un-American free-riders, criminals, drug addicts, rapists and even terrorists.
They don’t believe America needs to apologize for historically killing or displacing 90% of the indigenous (“Indian”) people, or that black slavery was all that bad, or that every lynching was wrong, or that the Civil War was won by the right side, or that they should tolerate Muslims, Jews, atheists, feminists, gays, or LGBT rights advocates.
And they reserve a special place in hell for elites, PhDs, and especially government bureaucrats who spout words they don’t understand, and who consider them to be deplorable, abominable and uncivil.
They are tired of facts and want their own; tired of truth and want moral equivalency for conspiracies; tired of experts and in praise of crackpots; tired of knowledge and proud of the right to know nothing; tired of political correctness and enthused by contrariness; tired of being screwed by the system enough to sabotage it; tired of being blamed and want to blame others; tired of being silent and want to be incorrect, incorrigible, disruptive, contrarian, and in your face about it.
They love it when Trump insults blacks, women, Muslims, Hispanics, immigrants, liberals, institutions, nations, and concerns like climate change which all nations on the planet except Trump’s say is a matter of planetary survival.
Trump stokes the fires of polarization in his daily tweets to 56 million followers which dominate the news cycles, eroding real news. As politics, media and family conversations have been polarized by Trump, the political dialogue has sunk to levels only Trump can enjoy.
The major narratives in the US today are about the tribalization identity politics of pro-or-anti-Trump; and the choice between extremist left-or-right wing ideologies which abhor centrist, inclusive, bi-partisan compromises or solutions.
Mass media and the Internet are cloyed with pro-or-anti-Trump extremism. But extremist narratives starve the body politic of dialogue about its common problems and solutions. This is precisely as Trump wants it: the American system thrives on democratic give-and-take to govern in the center. Destroy that dialogue and you have uncentered the democracy.
Trump is effectively deteriorating America’s political dialogue and thus its governance. And that, as Venezuela’s decline proved, will deteriorate the power of law in the culture, eventually eroding the economy. While Trump is enjoying the best U.S. economy in 50 years at the moment, there are leading indicators that an enormous crash is in the offing.
Here are the centrist narratives that 24/7 Trumpism is suppressing:
There is very little analysis of the economic consequences of populism. Venezuela’s economy was destroyed by it, including its oil industry. If Trump’s policies on taxation, trade, immigration, regulation, and climate change get entrenched, a depression could wipe out global prosperity.
The feasibility analysis of centrist, inclusive solutions – the hallmark of America’s progress since its founding – is paltry. The Brookings Institution and American Enterprise Institute are working on it, but the political parties are locked in polarized positions forged by Trump. Without dialogue about inclusive solutions, democratic governance in the U.S. is virtually impossible.
There is not enough insight into the economic consequences of America entertaining itself to death in social media. The Internet, video games and TV entertainment shows may be having serious impacts on work, education, productivity, innovation and prosperity.
The study of race, ethnicity, gender and perceived differences among humans in homogenous and heterogenous settings needs ever more study. In a small world of almost 8 billion persons, antagonism with “others” seems to be rising rapidly. Why is there so little political study of how white, male, rural and no-college Americans can be included in the liberal social safety net and the culturally respected political world? In 1968, Robert Kennedy’s optimistic presidential campaign conflated urban blacks and rural working-class whites in his coalition; why can’t that be adapted to 2020?
And worst of all, there is very little recognition of why facts are intentionally unknown, ignored unconsidered, or rejected outright by large populations who know better. Hans Rosling has done fundamental work on this problem in his book Factfulness
which everyone should read.
Knowing and checking the facts is of paramount interest immediately in the teaching of history and the practice of journalism, both of which are made difficult in today’s proliferation of "alternative facts", fake news and distortions. Without a recognition of facts, the basic tenets of civilization – law, governance and economy -- become vulnerable institutions. In an inter-dependent world linked by media, collapse can be universal and simultaneous.
Readers of this space know what happened to Venezuela when these cultural and political matters were not addressed in time – and still remain. Have we learned nothing from Venezuela’s failure or must we repeat it elsewhere? And if our ignorance remains invincible, will we know what happened when our local and global economies collapse? Michael Rowan is an author and political consultant who has advised presidential candidates throughout Latin America, including Governor Manuel Rosales in Venezuela, President Jaime Paz Zamora of Bolivia and President Oscar Arias of Costa Rica. In the U.S., he has advised winning candidates in 26 states. He has been an award winning columnist for El Universal, The Daily Journal -- predecessor to LAHT -- and the Latin American Herald Tribune since the 1990s. He is the author, with Douglas Schoen, of The Threat Closer to Home - Hugo Chavez and the War Against America.